Waugh’s Dystopia

In the recent wave of interest in dystopian novels following the USA’s change of government, most attention has been focused on 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale (which has been made into a successful TV serial) and Brave New World. Evelyn Waugh’s own contribution to this genre, Love Among¬†the Ruins¬†(LaR), has received relatively little attention. It was recently republished by Commonweal, in which it first appeared in the USA in July 1953, and has been mentioned by a religious¬†news commentator John Zmirak (see earlier¬†posts) but otherwise has remained outside the current literary discussions. This may be because it is viewed as a right wing reaction to what was a left wing dystopia. While it is true that Waugh wrote the story¬†as a condemnation of where he thought the British Welfare State was headed, dystopias of whatever ideological source tend to have overlapping features. For example, while not achieving full dystopian status, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union shared some¬†goals¬†and are creepiliy similar, although starting¬†from different ends of the political spectrum.

One problem presented by Waugh’s book is that it is one of his weaker productions. The characters are cardboard and the humour doesn’t quite come off. He started writing it in 1950, a year after the success of Orwell’s 1984. Waugh¬†had written to Orwell in July 1949 pointing out what he thought was the major weakness in a book he generally admired:

For one thing I think your metaphysics are wrong. You deny the soul’s existence (at least Winston does) and can only contrast matter with reason & will…What makes your version¬†spurious to me is the disappearance of the church. I wrote of you once that you seemed unaware of its existence now when it is everywhere manifest. Disregard all the supernatural implications if you like, but you must admit its unique character as a social & historical institution. (Letters, 302)

As noted by novelist Robert Harris in his introduction to the 60th anniversary edition of 1984 (quoting much of the above from Waugh’s letter):

The possibility that the all-powerful rulers of Eurasia might one day be toppled by a Polish pope, or that the oil supplies of Oceania might be threatened by fundamentalist Islam, lies far outside the materialist logic of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Waugh’s dystopian vision was originally called “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” but after¬†he circulated a draft under that working title in late 1950, it apparently was not well received,¬†and he decided to expand and revise it. The revision was¬†not completed until November 1952. He¬†thought it “improved but not flawless” and hoped Ian Fleming’s Queen Anne Press might do a deluxe edition. According to his biographers, the major magazines showed little interest, and he agreed to its UK publication in Lilliput and, as noted,¬†Commonweal in the USA. These versions came out¬†in May and¬†July 1953, respectively, at about the same time it appeared in book form in the UK. Chapman and Hall published both a limited-signed and a general edition. Waugh¬†addresses the shortcomings he noted in Orwell’s 1984 by highlighting the¬†results of the loss of religious belief as well as of moral and political principles.

The book received a mixed critical reception in the UK. Waugh was so upset with the negative reviews in all three Beaverbrook papers that he published a rejoinder in The Spectator. The book never appeared as a separate publication in the USA and perhaps for that reason has suffered from less attention¬†here than in the UK. The reason for this different approach appears in an unpublished letter Waugh sent to his US publishers Little, Brown. This letter, dated 22 December 1953, recently appeared on the internet when it was auctioned last year in London. The auction house, Forum Auctions, has maintained a copy on their website where it can still be viewed. Waugh’s¬†US publisher Stanley Salmen apparently was also contemplating a limited-signed edition. Waugh wrote that the “only point about a limited, signed edition is that it should be scarce & that would-be buyers should be disappointed.” The limited UK edition was, however, not immediately exhausted, and Waugh thought that the remainder might be sold in the USA. He does not think it¬†“suitable for general publication as a separate booklet¬†in USA” but does think it might “form part of a book of short stories.” ¬†He¬†was¬†not clear¬†which of his stories had¬†appeared in book form in the USA but suggested that LaR be included in a collection that also contained Work Suspended. In 1953, the only collection of Waugh’s stories that had been published in the USA was a 1936 edition of Mr Loveday’s Little Outing¬†limited to 750 copies and printed in the UK.

Mr Salmen took Waugh’s advice and published a collection of Waugh’s stories that was issued¬†in October 1954. This was entitled Tactical Exercise and included pre-war stories as well as Work Suspended and LaR.¬†This collection may have been a good business decision in 1954 as the book had a second printing in November. But in terms of critical recognition, it deprived LaR of establishing itself¬†in the USA as a separate work. Tactical Exercise was reviewed by a fair assortment of US publications. Although no review appeared in the Luce magazines¬†or the New Yorker, the New York Times reviewed it twice. At least one reviewer (Frank O’Conner in The¬†New Republic) focused on LaR but didn’t like what he¬†found, comparing it unfavorably with Orwell and Huxley.

Waugh’s little¬†book is well worth reading in the current environment of renewed interest in dystopias. It proclaims its relevance from the very first paragraph, at least in light of recent political events in the USA :

Despite their promises at the last election, the politicians had not changed the climate. The State Meteorological Institute had so far produced only an unseasonal fall of snow and two little thunderbolts no larger than apricots. The weather varied from day to day and from county to county as it had done of old, most anomalously.

The book should also gain traction with today’s readers¬†from the¬†voluminous growth of “long, silken corn-gold” hair growing on the heroine of Waugh’s dystopia. This grows¬†on her face, as well as¬†her scalp, but nevertheless a clever journalist¬†could surely make a connection with the extravagant corn-gold comb-over of a well-known¬†political figure. ¬†The hero, Miles Plastic, also has a perverse interest in real estate since he habitually burns down large developments which the government will be required to rebuild. Finally, in Waugh’s story there is the guiding “principle of the New Law that no man could be held responsible for the consequences of his own acts.” That certainly sounds familiar to anyone in the USA reading descriptions of the dystopian philosophy ascribed by mainstream media to the country’s newly elected chief executive.

Waugh’s story is still available as of this writing on the Commonweal website and is also included in both current US and UK editions of his collected stories.

(Additional Sources: Robert Murray Davis, et al., A Bibliography of Evelyn Waugh (1986); Robert Murray Davis, A Catalogue of the Evelyn Waugh Collection (1981); Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: The Later Years (1992); Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage (1984).)

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